Beki Grinter

New Insights into Familiar Friends

In computer science, research on September 23, 2011 at 12:55 pm

I’ve always felt lucky that I’ve had multiple jobs in the course of my career. Modulo the research statement, and the recruiting process, and the visa issues that that all came with, other than that it’s been a good thing 🙂 For example, I can compare and contrast experiences and learn from that. I feel so lucky to have met so many talented and creative researchers, and worked alongside them in different contexts.

So, today I want to describe another reason, which is the new insights I’ve gained into the technologies that had seemed like familiar friends.

At Bell Labs, I learned that the company had had marine biology research foci. I knew that Bell Labs had had an amazing history of innovation in unlikely areas for the telephone company (for example, the creation of the first synthetic version of the B12 vitamin). So, when I learnt about marine biology I thought how wonderful it was that the Labs continued this tradition of commitment to science. But I was soon corrected. Marine biologists are very central to telephony, because some surprising percentage of underwater cables are break  because they are a tasty meal for aquatic life. The Internet was, and remains, vulnerable to shark attacks.

At Xerox it was high-speed printers. Truthfully, after one of them printed out my dissertation quickly, they were a source of resentment for me. My thesis took months to write and less than three minutes to print. But one day while standing by one of these high-speed printers someone explained to me how they were designed to ensure both high speed while minimizing flammability. And it had never occurred to me how significant it is to design a high speed printer so that the paper is pushed quickly but in such ways that it does not catch fire.

I have no idea how you protect the Internet from the living or ensure that a printer won’t catch fire, but both of these encounters briefly opened up these technologies for me in ways that I had not considered. Familiarity was challenged by a realization that there was “a lot more going on here” than I had ever realized. And having that experience multiple times, shaped by companies who had to have a staff with a collective knowledge that reflected that “there’s a lot more going on here than you realize” is another reason I am so glad to have spent time in different places. Bell Labs and Xerox taught me through these sorts of encounters that technology is all about complexity.


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